Life, Love, and Leadership in the Two-Year Center

This year marks my tenth anniversary as the writing center coordinator at our college. I’ve been doing this gig so long that many faculty and staff here think that I founded the center, that I got the whole enterprise started.

On the contrary. Like most women in academe, I stood on the shoulders of someone else.

I was hired tenure track in English in 2005 and soon befriended by Julie Rodakowski, a North Dakota woman with a passion for composition teaching and a deep belief in the power and value of two-year colleges. I was fresh from defending my dissertation, my head was still solidly in the university realm, so much so that I thought it was sacrilegious to miss a year of CCCC’s. I needed to figure out if community college teaching was going to satisfy me, and more importantly, if I could make a difference in a place where the entire student body turned over every two or three years and job placement and transfer defined student success.

Julie had the answer to both questions: let’s start a learning center. A comprehensive one that includes all the major disciplines that students must take for gen ed requirements, and let’s roll in the writing center. In fact, let’s create a collaborative model in which the writing center, math lab, and sciences all partner… all talk to each other! Oh, and we should probably add ESL, reading, computer applications, speech, and foreign languages while we’re at it.

If the idea of running a regular ol’ writing center was not sexy to me at the time, the Comprehensive Learning Center sure was… and it would emancipate the current, struggling, sad-in-the-library-basement writing center from English department politics and turf battles (as well as the aforementioned basement). Genius!

The rest is history. Julie was the visionary and I was the logistics person, thankfully. I needed someone older and wiser to show me–not tell me, but show me–how change can happen when you believe in your mission, can convince others, and have a game plan to make it work. People on our campus never said “no” to her. She got us a state legislature grant; she got us ongoing college level funding. She got us prime real estate on the third floor of the campus epicenter. I just took notes.

I watched in mute admiration as she waltzed into the office of the college president and said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” He had no choice but to leave his desk and follow. The something was our new learning center, bursting at the seams with busy students and busier tutors, hopping from table to table, answering questions, but also posing questions and offering alternate perspectives. Seeing is believing! Julie made a believer out of everyone, even me, the one who was scared to grow anything too large because it might become unmanageable.

I’m happy to say that I’ve outgrown that fear. I am no longer afraid to ask for money, to move furniture around, to push back when the administration pushes in the wrong direction, and to speak out for our marginalized students. I learned from the best.

What am I afraid of now? That the administration won’t approve our request for another fulltime tutor, that my tutor training class won’t fill this fall, that we’re not serving developmental writers as well as we could. These are nice problems to have; they are second or third generation issues in a writing center.

Working in a community college means being tied to assessment, assessment, assessment. Retention is the boogeyman that keeps our superiors up at night. The learning center can help on both fronts. Front-end loading services for students improves pass rates, retention rates, and graduation rates. It contributes to student success and job placement. More importantly, sitting down and working one on one with a tutor can change a student’s perception of learning, how knowledge is made, where agency resides, and what is important in education. Dialogue is key; collaboration is crucial. We use those tools to make education more effective.

Julie Rodakowski knew that; she lived it every day, with her students, with her colleagues, as overall coordinator of our CLC. Even our leadership model—one faculty coordinator for each discipline—was based in social constructionism. Whenever we get a new dean (and lately, that has been annually), I tell her, “We have a collaborative model here. We work as a team and don’t make any decision unilaterally.”

I’m proud of that fact. I’m proud that we have dreamed, built, and sustained a model that is the antidote to so much that is authoritarian, hierarchical, and judgmental in higher education. We are the space that students enter to engage in inquiry, to talk to their classmates, to figure things out.

Figure Things Out. If that’s not a life skill, I don’t know what is. Every day, our tutors are figuring things out too. So am I. We’re all learning together.

Thanks, Julie.

~Pam Whitfield, Ph.D.

Rochester Community and Technical College (MN)